Matson teaches Exiles the hard way

London Irish now have anything but a soft centre
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They used to sing ditties down at Sunbury on a Saturday night. One began: "I don't know why I joined the London Irish; My mother was half Spanish and half Dutch; I don't know if I ever had a father; Mother doesn't talk about him too much".

They used to sing ditties down at Sunbury on a Saturday night. One began: "I don't know why I joined the London Irish; My mother was half Spanish and half Dutch; I don't know if I ever had a father; Mother doesn't talk about him too much".

No, you did not always have to be Irish to play for London Irish, but some say that the club, now relocated from Sunbury to Reading via Harlequins, has gone too far down the road of accepting all-comers. Others highlight two crucial factors: the improvement in the Irish economy since the 1950s, when 85 per cent of university graduates would head overseas for work; and more recently the determination of the Irish Rugby Football Union to bring their best players home to play.

These days the bottle green jersey of the London Irishman is just as likely to rest on a Kiwi as a Kerryman. Off the field, the Irish remain all craic and "Cockles and Mussels". On it, they have a southern hemisphere quartet calling the tune in the backline. Scrum-half Junior Tonu'u (currently nursing a finger tendon injury), outside-half Jarrod Cunningham and inside centre Jason Wright all learned their rugby in the New Zealand school of hard knocks. At outside centre is Tabai Matson - Fijian-born, New Zealand-raised.

Irish's encouraging start to the Premiership season - two wins out of three before thisafternoon's visit to Bristol - has been marked by Matson's direct running, wise distribution and teak-tough defence.

Matson moved from Fiji to Christchurch aged four, and stayed on as a boarder at Christ's College when his New Zealander father and Fijian mother returned to the islands. "Tabs" spent his teenage summers as a tuna baitman onFijian fishing boats, sleeping out on deck at night. In the winters he progressed via Canterbury age grade sides and the Marist club to an impressive 34 Super 12 appearances for the Crusaders in three seasons, culminating in the team's first title win in 1998.

Now 27, Matson twice came close to a Test cap for New Zealand. In France in November 1995, he made two midweek appearances at centre and occupied the left wing in the final Saturday match before the first Test. But Jonah Lomu took that position for the internationals, while the No 13 jersey was held by the peerless Frank Bunce. It was a similar story the following year in South Africa. "I had a terrible tour," said Matson. "John Hart had taken over as coach from Laurie Mains, and he realised that I was playing injured. That was basically it for me and the All Blacks."

In 1998, Matson earned rave reviews as the Crusaders began their three-year domination of the Super 12, but Hart kept his distance, and the Canterbury boy moved abroad to Brive in France, making do with his five All Black jerseys. He has since played once for Fiji, but missed the World Cup last year with a calf injury.

Matson soon came into contact with Brive's notorious coach, Laurent Seigne. "He thought all backs were soft, which is probably a fair enough rule of thumb. At one stage he had the backs lying on the ground in the changing room, with the forward pack running over the top of them."

Matson starred in Brive's European Shield matches against London Irish last season, and Irish's director of rugby, Dick Best, signed him this summer. "I loved my time in France," said Matson, "but I was disappointed with the level of rugby. The Premiership is far harder."

So too, now, are the Irish. Matson and Wright both stand comfortably over six foot; Wright is the sort of man who has to walk through a front door sideways. "It's getting a wee bit like rugby league," said Matson, "in that if you don't let the opposition in, you only need to score a few points to win. Basically I run straight and try to set up my outsides. I've always judged how good a centre is by how many tries the wings and full-back score."

Matson spends his leisure time looking after his daughters Holly, two, and Michal, three months, happily ensconced in a semi a drop kick from the Thames. It may be a short stay. The former Canterbury coach, Peter Sloane, is now with the Otago Highlanders and wants Matson back for the Super 12 in March. "Before I arrived here, it was 70-30 that I would go," said Matson. "Now it's 50-50. The club is great, and the guys are perfect. I've been sore after games, and I like that because it means you've done something.

"The level is not much lower than Super 12 and I don't know how the international players do it. Keep doing it, I say, otherwise you might just overtake the southern hemisphere."